West Side Story (1961)

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If you know nothing else about West Side Story (like, say, your fearless blogger), you know that it’s based on Romeo and Juliet.  Okay, I’m familiar with Shakespeare, so I have a pretty good idea of how this movie is going to go.  Somebody dresses up as a woman (and/or man), everybody gets married in the end, and a Fool sings in rhyming couplets, right?  Just kidding – it’s one of the ones where everyone is brutally murdered, obviously the best choice to set to music.

I know plenty of people who really love this movie, so I came into it with the cautious skepticism that accompanies any viewing of a favorite.  (Basically, I’m always expecting to be disappointed, both in the movie/TV show/whatever and with myself for being so damned contrary).  In past posts, I’ve noted my low to moderate interest in musicals, which is merely to say:  don’t expect me to go crazy here.

From the beginning, I couldn’t help noticing the filmmaker’s deep appreciation of color, as many of them as possible, in fact.  In the overture, I was half-convinced that something had gone horribly wrong with my television set.  Later on, there are moments that suggest someone went a little wild with the Instagram filters.  The Sharks and the Jets conveniently dress themselves in coordinating colors, like uniforms for their respective sports teams, which is honestly what they seemed like more than rival gangs.

Let’s just be real here:  it’s really hard for me to take a musical seriously.  I can’t immerse myself in a story about racism and blood feuds when somebody’s busting out into song every few minutes.  My attention flags quickly in the middle of a number, because I’m just waiting for something else to happen.  And sure, the dance choreography is pretty neat, but it just makes me think of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” more than deeply affecting emotional drama.

This also reminds me a lot of The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.  These were the sorts of stories that originated in an era when clean-cut preppies faced off against the greasers, and everybody had hilarious nicknames.  Sort of like hipsters versus everybody else today.

Though it’s certainly not the most egregious case of whitewashing in cinematic history, it’s worth noting that Natalie Wood is not, in fact, Puerto Rican.  Does it matter?  Natalie Wood was apparently the child of immigrants, so perhaps she could speak to the immigrant experience in some way.  Or maybe studio execs and America weren’t willing to see an actual Latina woman in a starring movie role in 1961.  How many are there even now?

Speaking of Natalie Wood:  she died in a boating accident in somewhat mysterious circumstances.  Also on that boat was her husband, Robert Wagner, and a man who later became famous for all sorts of other reasons – Christopher Walken.  Random trivia.

What more is there to say about West Side Story?  Well, I watched it.  Another iconic film from the twentieth century, probably on that list of 1000 Films to See Before You Die.  I feel like I’ve checked something off the list of shared human pop cultural references.  No, I am not an alien living among people and pretending to know your ways – that is, our ways.  I am completely normal.

 

Theme:  Whitewashing

First Time Watching?  Would you believe yes?

Final Verdict:  Let’s negotiate a RUMBLLLLLE!

 

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Oliver! (1968)

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I have a distinct memory of my eighth grade English class joking about that famous line of Oliver’s “Please sir; can I have some more?” repeating it to each other ad naseum and laughing hysterically every time.  This leads me to believe that we read the book, at least in part, and watched this film, at least in part.  However, I could not have told you a single plot point if my life depended on it.  That’s either a reflection of my education or of my long-term literary memory.

 

Thanks to IMDB trivia, I’ve learned that Oliver Twist was initially published in the pre-Victorian times – specifically, in 1837 (in serial form), while William IV still reigned.  All the same, if there’s any writer I associate with the Industrial Revolution and the Victorian era, it’s certainly Charles Dickens.

 

The plot is this:  Oliver Twist is stuck in an orphanage until he dares to ask for more gruel.  Then he gets dumped into a undertaker’s family, but they don’t like having him around, so he escapes to London.  There, he joins up with a creepy old man who lives with a bunch of homeless boys and teaches them to pick pockets, obviously by encouraging them to reach into his pants.

 

Recently, I’ve been playing this old computer game called Thief.  It’s an awesome game, where the main purpose is to sneak around stealing stuff.  I was reminded of it by this one scene with Bill Sikes, the scary house burglar who was once creepy old man Fagin’s protégé and still uses him to fence his goods.  Bill Sikes has a big sack and keeps taking out plates and silverware and pewter trays and all this crazy, loud stuff, using the same sort of video game logic that allows a character who’s supposed to be really quiet and sneaky carrying around a big clanging bag of junk.

 

As I’ve found in most of the musicals I’ve watched, I can often get kind of interested in the story, only to find myself stymied by the songs.  “Get to the point already!” I usually think.  There were a few interesting bits of song here, where different members of the town come and go, creating a sort of layered effect that worked well in establishing atmosphere.  In general, though, I did find myself anxiously awaiting the next scene to start.  I guess I’m just not a big musical person.

 

It’s quite clear that, regardless of genre or time period, women on film rarely get a fair shake.  Poor Nancy is stuck with a deadbeat boyfriend in Bill Sikes, and doesn’t come out great for it.  She wasn’t the greatest friend to Oliver, but at least she did try to help him out in the end.

 

I don’t know if it’s a skill or a cheesy gimmick, but the story manages to be conveniently wrapped up by the appearance of an unexpected distant relative.  So if you are an orphan, all you need to do is make sure that your dearly departed mother was kin to a rich uncle who can save you from your poverty once he learns about your existence.

 

 

Theme:  Victorian

First Time Watching:  Possibly not, but I don’t remember it

Final Verdict:  Shut up and drink your gin!

 

Gigi (1958)

I’d originally planned to pair a different movie with my first selection this week, but it just so happened to fit in quite well with my month-long theme for August, so I decided to make a last-minute substitution.  That’s where Gigi comes in.

I’m sure I’ve said it before, but I fundamentally find musicals kind of boring.  The songs in musicals tend to be great expository blocks that could have been summed up in a couple of lines of dialogue.  “Oh, I find my wealthy playboy life unsatisfactory and boring,” says Gaston the wealthy playboy, but instead we need a show-stopping number to drive the point home.  And what is it anyway with romances that start with at least one character who is cynical about ever falling in love?  Maybe the most important lesson to learn is that if you want to live a romantic life, you should start out by being as unromantic as possible.

On the other hand, the thing I do enjoy about musicals (since my mind tends to wander so easily during the song) is imagining what it would be like if people just went around in real life breaking out into song.  There you are, catching Pokémon in the park, and suddenly a dude sitting on the bench behind you starts going on with “Bellsprouts are ringing in my heart” or something.  You’d think he was loony.

In terms of this film, I’d like to point out another pet peeve I’ve noticed in old movies:  the Creepy Old Guy Who Leers at Young Girls.  Uncle Honore (curious name for an aging French bachelor) narrates the story at the beginning, looking remarkably like Sam the Snowman in the Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer Christmas special, originating in the same era.  Though he is certainly in his 60s or older by that point, he starts off with a song thanking heaven for “little girls.”  Also, the little girl he’s talking about is the one who ends up marrying his nephew, just in case it wasn’t tasteless enough to ogle any random girl.  Oh, but such is life in the 1950s.  Or the 1900s, when this film is supposed to be set.

I’d seen in some ranking that this movie was considered to be nearly at the bottom of the pile of all the Oscar winners.  In truth, I was expecting it to be much worse.  Though it wasn’t really to my taste – I’d rather see witty banter than drawn-out songs – it wasn’t really any worse than the other musicals of that same era.  I consider this to be on part with An American in Paris or even My Fair Lady.  At least the male romantic lead had some endearing qualities.

One thing, though, for which I think Gigi is rightfully praised is the look of it – the costumes, the set pieces, the artistic art cards to introduce scenes in a party montage.  There’s one little shot of the shore in waning light, with Gigi and Gaston dragging donkeys along the beach (don’t ask) that just looks really nice.

I’m just glad it all works out for Gigi in the end, and she can spend the rest of her life pouring coffee and lighting Gaston’s cigars.  True romance.

 

Theme:  Classic romantic comedy

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  I’d rather be miserable with you than without you.

Chicago (2002)

 

Well, this was a fun little flick to close out the month.  I’ve been living in a cave since 2002 (and probably earlier since this was originally on Broadway), so I didn’t actually know anything about this movie except that it was a musical.  Little did I realize it fell into one of my more favored genres, the dark comedy.  As an added bonus, the film features bad girls, glorifying them in the same way we’ve been admiring the moxie of our gangsters since the jazz age.  It’s like Orange is the New Black, or at least what I imagine it would be like, not having watched it myself.  There’s singing in OITNB, right?

It’s interesting, and rather fitting, to contrast this movie with the first one I watched this month, The Broadway Melody.  Both are female-focused musicals, with a sort of meta narrative about performance.  But where the first felt more like an attempt to replicate the exact on-stage theatrical performance, Chicago plays with both the musical genre and film itself to tell a story.  I especially loved the marionette scene, where dancers are choreographed as puppets, all of them controlled by the mastermind defense lawyer played by Richard Gere.  Just layers upon layers going on there.

I’ve never seen a musical on stage, I don’t think – certainly not a real Broadway show.  I guess technically, there was that one year Shakespeare on the Common did a mashup of Shakespeare with old Rat Pack songs.  Does that count?  I don’t even know.  But my point is, I realize that there are certain customs and tropes in musicals that I simply don’t get because I’m not familiar with the genre.  While that might bother me in some other cases, here it didn’t.  It felt accessible and engaging, even though virtually every moment of the film was a song.

In this particular case, it’s a little harder to run a Bechdel Test.  Does it count as a conversation if two women happen to be singing in the same song?  If they’re discussing ways to be cleared of a crime, does it matter that it was for a man’s murder if they don’t actually mention the man in dialogue?  Regardless, it’s an academic discussion, because there are enough moments between the many women in prison, discussing their respective crimes (of which all are perfectly innocent), to pass the test.  Why aren’t there more movies like this?  I might actually watch musicals in that case.

And so ends another theme month here at the ol’ Oscar blog.  As we hit the halfway point of the year, I’m pleased to report that I’ve officially watched exactly half of the movies on the Best Picture list.  Right on target.  I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure I would be able to keep this up so long.  Over the past couple of months, I’ve felt a bit more strain about the whole process, like I’m always on the verge of having to watch another movie, post another blog, swing by the library for another pair of requested movies.  Warmer weather also makes me less eager to spend an afternoon in front of the TV.

There’s even a librarian who’s clearly a movie buff, taking note of all the classics I pick up, once or twice a week.  I tried to explain my project once, as I’ve tried to do with other casual acquaintances, but it’s hard to say why I’m doing it.  And if I’ve managed to keep up this habit, why not other more useful ones, like exercise or flossing?  I’d like to think I’m learning something about myself in the process.  But I guess I still have six months to figure out what it is.

 

Theme:  Ladies on film

Bechdel Test:  Passed!

First Time Watching?

Final Verdict:  There ain’t no justice in the world

My Fair Lady (1964)

Rex Harrison, I discovered while watching this film (and perusing IMDB for tidbits of trivia) was the inspiration for Stewie’s character on Family Guy.  That’s not really relevant to anything else I have to say about this movie, but it seemed like one of the more pleasant things I could say about Henry Higgins, so let’s start there, shall we?

In college, I took a couple of classes in linguistics, so that obviously makes me an expert in the field.  And I have so much trouble believing that a character like Professor Higgins who seems to be so fascinated with speech can also be so judgmental about how people talk.  What intrigued me most about linguistic study was the sheer range of sounds that we could make and still be understood.  But then douchey Higgins comes along and makes a little science experiment out of Eliza Doolittle and takes all the credit for her transforming herself into a bombshell with excellent elocution.

Is it truly a romantic movie if you spend most of it hoping that the female lead will come to her senses and get the hell away from the guy?  Why is it considered romantic for a woman to fall in love with a total asshole who treats her like crap?  Even worse, a man who sings songs about how terrible women are and how they should be more like men (listen, buddy, when you’re singing a song to your live-in, confirmed bachelor, fellow-linguist colonel friend about how you wish women were more like him, you need to come to terms with some basic truths about yourself; just run off together, already).  Eliza has the good sense to get away from him, but then comes back, just in time for him to demand his slippers.  Come on, Liza.  You can do better than that.  Find a damn prince.

There’s an interesting commentary here about social class, and how the way people present themselves to the world – through speech and dress – affects the opportunities they can access in life.  Eliza recognizes this from the beginning, and manages to raise her station by getting lucky and working hard.  It’s a shame to think that, even in her best-case scenario, all she thought herself good for was to work as a teacher supporting a worthless lump of a suitor.  Instead, she finds herself silenced at every turn, even as she struggles to find a new voice.  Meanwhile, the men sit around congratulating themselves on how well they’ve fooled everyone with their pet project.  The scene after the ball, where Higgins and Pickering are singing about how great they are as Eliza cowers in the background, worried about what’s next for her is kind of heartbreaking, though I suspect it was meant more to be funny.

Bits like that add up to a big fat zero when it comes to the Bechdel Test.  There are so few scenes where Eliza is not surrounded by the phonetic duo that I didn’t even keep track of any spots where she spoke to other women.  Maybe a couple of moments where she’s alone with the maid or Higgins’ mom, and where she’s either screaming bloody murder or playing coy about running out on Higgins.  But any movie that takes such pains to blather on about women’s irrationality doesn’t deserve a feminist pass.

You can change a human by changing her speech, Higgins says at some point in the film.  It’s a shame he couldn’t change his own speech to be a better person.

 

Theme:  Ladies on film

Bechdel Test:  Even if it passed, all the misogynistic songs would disqualify it

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Well, I’m dashed

An American in Paris (1951)

Song-and-dance movies are kind of like porn:  if you’re looking for plot, you’re watching for the wrong reason.  This movie kind of makes that clear, in that the final twenty minutes are dominated by an extended dance sequence which apparently – though I was far too ignorant to pick up on this on my own – were themed around particular French artists.  Dance fixes everything, of course, so all the problems that were raised throughout the film (standard romance fare:  somebody is betrothed to somebody else, etc.) are entirely dispensed with by the end.

The plot is this:  Jerry Mulligan is an American soldier who stays in Paris after the war to become a painter.  His buddy is a pianist and his buddy is a singer, and so they probably spend more time breaking out into song-dance-numbers than Jerry spends painting.  (Granted, a movie spent watching somebody paint might not be a better alternative.)  A rich American woman expresses interest in Jerry’s art – or possibly his body – but Jerry falls in love with a French girl instead, who also happens to be dating the singer.  Everything works out in the end via a massive dance number.

I don’t know a lot about the classic dancer/film stars of this era, as evidenced by the fact that I spent half the movie thinking the star was Fred Astaire rather than Gene Kelly (thanks, Madonna).  I do recall being bored to tears in the show-stopping numbers of the movies or cartoons that I did see as a kid.  That part where Judy Garland sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of OzAnd it’s still in black and white?  Snooze.  I suppose it’s a little different if I’m watching an actual dance performance, but I don’t have much patience for tap-dancing on film.  Like, the sounds are probably dubbed in later anyway, right?

One thing that I don’t often notice while I’m watching movies that stood out here were the interesting transitions.  There’s a moment where a character lights a cigarette, which then dissolves into a dancing woman reaching for a lamp.  Obviously, it’s much harder to explain than to actually notice.  The final dance sequence also did some neat things that seemed to blend the set of a stage performance which techniques that could only be done with film – like reconstructing a Paris street drawing done by Gene Kelly, the titular American artist, into a backdrop that morphs with each of a series of scenes.  It’s visually arresting, if not necessarily something that held my interest forever.

There’s also a quirky trick in the beginning that I liked, where someone introduces a character and then subverts it somehow, like by panning the camera to a figure in a window and then saying, “Oh, no, that’s not me.”  Like the other techniques, I was hoping there might be more of that, but after a description-through-dance number with the French girl, it kind of disappeared.

Ah, well.  It’s not supposed to make sense, is it, as long as you get what you came for.

 

Theme:  the American man

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:   ‘S Wonderful?

The Sound of Music (1965)

This is one of those films that everyone seems to know intimately well, having watched it regularly since childhood.  I regret to inform you that I did not have that childhood.  Instead, my childhood was marked by a toy consisting of a pair of kittens in a basket that, upon turning a key, would play a tinny-sounding “My Favorite Things” while the kittens swayed in unison.  They were so well synchronized because they were part of the same metal frame fused together, I discovered after investigating underneath the basket.  I also learned that the music played on a metal cylinder with holes drilled at appropriate intervals, though I didn’t realize the tune’s origin until many years later.

Up until watching The Sound of Music this past weekend, all I really knew of the plot came from moments recreated on Family Guy.  And I suspect a significant chunk of the movie ended up in parody form at some point; I almost convinced myself that I’d seen the movie before because of the familiarity of the final scenes at the concert and the cemetery.  Who knows?  Maybe I have.

Like most romances, this one begins with the dude acting like an asshole because the woman is being herself.  The free-spirited Maria can’t hack it as a nun, so they send her to manage a brood of children under the tyrannical leadership of their naval officer father, Von Trapp (who is surprisingly resistant to the tyrannical leadership of Hitler).  Somehow, with the help of a few show-stopping numbers, everybody gets along (except for Hitler).  That pretty much sums up the film.  I suspect most people reading this know far more about it than I do.

In terms of the 1960s decade, there’s a relative dearth of war pictures, and there’s probably a good reason for it.  World War II was distant enough by that point that it didn’t hang quite so heavy on people’s lives, and by the time the Vietnam War dominated the news, it’s understandable that people wanted to avoid thinking about it in their entertainment.  The closest you get is this, which is more romance than drama, a little too upbeat to really delve deeply into the horrors of war.

Admittedly, The Sound of Music is an unusual choice for a war-themed series.  While the threat of war looms heavily on the story, particularly in the later moments, it’s not really a “war movie” per se.  Then again, nothing says war like Nazis.  I thought it would be interesting to include regardless, as a contrast of sorts to the other angles we’ve seen of war thus far:  the cold monotony of trench warfare, the recovery of soldiers back home, the drudgery and adventure of troops and commandos.  Here is a pleasant family life spoiled by war.  The story of The Sound of Music suggests more to me of the lives of Jews in Germany and throughout Eastern Europe, forced to uproot their lives to escape the Nazis.  I don’t know enough about the making of the film (or its original musical) to determine whether the story of this family is meant to reflect the struggles of oppressed peoples, or if it’s just that so many of the stories of refugees were similar.  Except maybe the part with the singing kids.

I didn’t expect to enjoy this film, being all cool and cynical, but I mostly did.  Not having seen it, I still recognized so many of the songs, which have percolated into popular culture (and creepy children’s toys).  As a kid, I remember getting bored in the musical numbers of movies, wanting them to just get on with the damn story already, and I feel a little of that here, too.  Fortunately, these days, I have a smartphone to distract me.

 

Theme:  War

Which War?  World War II (Anschluss)

First Time Watching?  Yes.  For God’s sake, yes, I’ve never seen it before!

Final Verdict:  How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?  I mean, will it just sit there, or do you have to wrap it up in your fist, or what?